Writing to Learn

by Sydne Tyler Mccluskey

"Learning" by CollegeDegrees360 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

“Learning” by CollegeDegrees360 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

One of the most important lessons I learned during my time as a psychology instructor for education majors was that writing is an important part of the learning process, not just an end product. When we write, our thoughts do not spring fully formed into language; rather, they are born through the process of writing. Many instructors feel intimidated about incorporating more writing assignments into their courses because of fears about the time burden of crafting and grading these assignments. As Elbow (1997) points out, though, low stakes writing assignments do not require an enormous time investment for grading. In many cases, giving only a participation grade for such assignments can be beneficial. In these cases, the instructor may not need to give any feedback at all. Personally, I gave many low stakes writing assignments to my students, so I rotated through them and gave only a few of them feedback per assignment. I assigned grades on low-stakes writing solely based on participation and aimed feedback at working toward a later, high-stakes term paper. Because my course was part of the curriculum for becoming a teacher, the term paper was a Department of Education requirement and part of the teacher certification process – a truly high-stakes assignment. I used the low-stakes writing assignments to scaffold that assignment by critically exploring course material and supporting students in developing and supporting claims.

I think this strategy of frequent, low-stakes writing accomplished several goals that were important to me. First, it stimulated conversation. During my first semester teaching, one of my biggest struggles was getting students to participate in in-class discussion about the material. I found that giving students a prompt and a short time (usually 5-10 minutes) to collect their thoughts through writing resulted in much deeper small- and large-group discussion. Second, when students knew they were only being graded on participation, I think some of their anxiety surrounding writing dissipated, giving them the freedom to explore their own opinions and think critically without the added concern of grammatical correctness and style. Finally, getting feedback on low-stakes writing helped both them and me have a better experience when it came time for high-stakes writing – they knew from repeated experiences of receiving feedback what I was expecting, and I was able to have a fuller picture of their individual strengths and weaknesses both as writers and in the subject matter. White, Reichelt, and Woods (2011) found that students felt very positively about these kinds of low stakes assignments, and many of their students noted they felt more engaged with the course. As an added bonus, students have a strong incentive to attend class when they can so easily earn participation points.

Although my experience is specific to psychology instruction, I think much of it could easily apply to other subjects and areas of study. Bean (2011) argues that a central task of any instructor is facilitating critical thinking. Skilled critical thinkers, he says, “demand justification of claims, seek to disconfirm hypotheses, avoid hasty conclusions, and provide reasons and evidence for their own claims.” But none of these skills come naturally. Low-stakes writing assignments are far from the only exercises that can support development of these skills, but they are perhaps uniquely suited to it. Developing a piece of writing requires us to explore our understanding and gaps in our knowledge. Unlike in spoken language, writing allows us to “keep our words private or to revise them before showing them to anyone else” (Elbow, 1997). If instructors use low-stakes writing as a point of departure for discussion, students are presented with other points of view they may not have considered, forcing them to justify their argument in the face of competing claims. Low-stakes writing assignments invite students to participate in a debate by formulating a position and defending it against competing positions, rather than seeking the “right answer” from a list of options, which is the only goal multiple-choice tests can serve. Writing become a part of a larger dialogue, rather than a demonstration of one’s knowledge of the ”right answer.” It was also my experience that students largely liked the writing assignments, because the assignments gave students the chance to consider what they thought about the material. Because I only gave feedback on a few students’ writing per assignment, I was able to stay away from generic comments and try to give more thoughtful feedback that (I hope) genuinely helped support them in more clearly communicating their ideas.

Bean (2011) suggests ten types of low-stakes writing assignments which promote critical thinking and can be flexibly applied to many courses in many disciplines. I highly suggest reading his book to any instructor who is interested in incorporating more writing into their course but feels unsure where and how to start. Here I’ve taken four of his ideas and elaborated on them based on my own experience:

  • Ask students to relate course concepts to their own experiences. Cognitive psychology tells us that we remember information better if we relate it to ourselves (Burns, 2006). Asking students to identify instances of a course concept in their own lives forces them to process the information more deeply than merely regurgitating definitions and facts from lectures. Generally, my own students were enthusiastic when writing about their own lives, and many of them talked about feeling like they understood their own experiences better after participating in these kinds of writing activities.
  • Have students write an explanation of course concepts to new/less advanced students. Anyone who has ever taught knows you achieve a whole new level of understanding on a topic when you have to teach it to others. Because my students were studying to become teachers, this strategy was particularly apt, but I think it would be helpful in any course. To tell someone else about a topic, you have to organize your thoughts and makes connections you otherwise might not have considered. You also have to think about misconceptions and how to keep pieces of information distinct.
  • Provide data and ask students to develop a thesis based on that information. I really enjoyed doing this because it gave students a chance to practice critical thinking about empirical findings. I liked to present students with data represented graphically and then ask them to write about what conclusions they could draw, based both on the data and on material from previous lectures and readings. Some of the most stimulating discussions I ever facilitated resulted from these writing sessions.
  • Present a case study of a complex problem lacking a clear answer, then ask students to develop and support a solution. I presented case studies with many points of view represented (e.g. students, teachers, parents, administrators, councilors). I tried to select case studies I thought addressed problems similar to those my students would face once they become instructors. Again, my students were enthusiastic about applying the concepts they learned in my course to real-world problems. Many times I was pleasantly surprised at the creative solutions my students were able to find, and ingenuity they used in raising aspects of the issue I had never even considered.


Bean (2011) provides in-depth discussion and examples of these and other writing assignments in chapter 7 of his book. All of these assignments can be pitched at high- or low-stakes levels (or anywhere in between). Many could be used as low-stakes assignments that build toward a larger project or term paper, giving students and instructors the chance to become familiar with expectations, strengths, and stumbling blocks, and giving students the chance to consider their choice of topic long before it’s time to start work on a large, daunting assignment.

When students have the chance to engage critically with course concepts and to approach writing in a lower-stakes environment, many of them realize they are more interested in the course than they anticipated. Learning becomes a process of constructing knowledge, rather than absorbing it – much more satisfying for everyone involved.


Bean, J. (2011).Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2 edition.

Burns, D. J. (2006). Assessing distinctiveness: Measures of item-specific and relational processing. In R. R. Hunt & J. B. Worthen (Eds.), Distinctiveness and memory (pp. 109–130). New York: Oxford University Press.

Elbow, P. (2002). High stakes and low stakes in assigning and responding to writing. In DeLuca, G., Fox, L., Johnson, M. A., and Kogen, M., editors, Dialogue on writing: Rethinking ESL, basic writing, and first-year composition, chapter 18, pages 289–298. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,Inc.

White, C. P., Reichelt, S., and Woods, B. (2011). Lowstakes writing as an instructional strategy to engage students. Family ScienceReview, 16(1):74–83.

Date: October 10, 2020

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